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Calling all in house lawyers to ‘Lean-In’

In 2013 Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s Chief Operating Officer and the only woman on the board at that time, published a book about the lack of woman at the top and what woman can do to help themselves achieve career ambitions.

I have been reading this book recently – a year later than when it was published, because like many busy professional women I too am juggling a career with a young family. In any event, the book makes for a fascinating read and I wanted to share some of my thoughts on it, with you.

From what she says, Sandberg worked incredibly hard to create a community for women at Facebook where they are able to ‘lean in,’ but what does she really mean by that and is it relevant to women lawyers? The answer, is a resounding ‘yes,’ of course! Sandberg defines ‘leaning in’ as ‘being ambitious in any pursuit.’ In her introduction, she highlights that women should define their goals clearly and concisely and as early on in their career as possible. Importantly, she says that women should not let personal fears and apprehensions hamper their accomplishments, easier said than done for some…

Whilst none of her ideas are revolutionary, what she says, makes good career sense. The facts demonstrate that there is still a long way to go for women in business. There are positive changes taking place too, which is encouraging. The Cranfield Female FTSE Board Report, informs us that in 2014 women now represent over 20% of the FTSE 100 board members for the first time – a shockingly low statistic, but none the less, this figure still represents an improvement. Drilling down further, in the Lawyer’s Hot 100 2014, more than 50% of the ‘hottest’ in house lawyers, were women.

In June I attended The Lawyer Awards and in fact presented the award to the winner of the In House Team of the Year. It went to a very worthy recipient, Mr Neil Harnby and his team at the Royal Mail – one of the few FTSE 100 companies headed by a female CEO, Moya Greene. (Carolyn McCall at Easyjet and Alison Cooper at Imperial Tobacco are the other 2 female CEO’s in the FTSE 100 since the departure of Angela Ahrendts from Burburry who left to join Apple earlier in the Spring) The In House Lawyer of the Year award went to another truly deserving recipient – Ms Sarah Nelson Smith, of Yum! Once again, many congratulations to Mr Harnby and Ms Nelson Smith for their outstanding achievements.

Engaged in a discussion with some of the team from ‘The Lawyer’ post the Awards, I was told, interestingly, that very few, if any of the female nominees ever self nominated. Separately, Catrin Griffiths, The Lawyer’s editor, commented to a Telegraph journalist last year that in the annual ‘Hot 100 list, not one of the 46 women featured had self nominated. I suspect the same applies for 2014. Upon further exploration of this topic, the feedback seems to be that that whilst female lawyers welcome the honour of being nominated for awards and receiving recognition in general, they simply do not seem to feel the need to mark their career achievements and put themselves forward in quite the same way as some of their male colleagues, which is thought provoking, though perhaps not altogether surprising.

We are all too aware of definite patterns in the legal profession, with fewer women occupying General Counsel and Partner positions and clear pay gaps between genders. Sandberg’s thesis, which is that it is easy to blame organisational culture, society or family commitments for holding women back – seems to suggest that in reality there’s also an “internal voice” for some women that tells them they are not as capable of succeeding. Happily, I know and have had the pleasure of working with many incredibly successful women across the legal profession and in recent years have witnessed a number of positive initiatives to help promote, support and retain high achieving women in business. Some of these initiatives include remote and flexible working options being offered; a growth in investment for training and on-going development, as well as significant improvements in the quantity and quality of superb professional networking groups. Of course, many female legal professionals have made it to top without any of these initiatives to support them but it is pleasing to see that they are more readily available for those who want it, going forward.

Returning to Sandberg. ’Without having read ‘Lean In’, it is easy to criticise her thesis. She is an incredibly smart women and enjoys immense career success and considerable wealth. She can easily afford all the support required to help balance the crazy juggling act that exists in order to have a successful professional and personal life, but please, read on….

‘Lean In’ is a fascinating and at times, frustrating read, but it is also an excellent career tool, offering a range of tactics that can be used at all stages of your professional life. In ‘Lean In’, there are lessons to be learnt for members of any profession or gender. Basically, Sandberg urges ambitious people, but women especially, to take risks in order to succeed.

If you do not have not time to read the book yourself, here are a few of her basic career ‘tips.’

1. It is essential that you are open to taking career risks. Sandberg says, women in particular tend to avoid ‘stretch’ assignments/new challenges worrying too much about whether they have the skills to take on a new, loftier job. Sandberg advises women to shift their thinking to “I want that – and I’ll learn by doing that.”

2. Forget about trying to please people. Sandberg comments on seeing many talented individuals holding themselves back, because of their own (and she confesses to having done this herself in the early days) desire to be liked. She urges you to release those fears, step up and push back, which will help to gain the respect you deserve and build your confidence.

3. ‘Visualise your career as a jungle gym and not a ladder.’ ‘ She claims ladders are limiting and ‘jungle gyms,’ offer a more creative route. Take it.

4. Allow yourself to fantasize about your career. Sandberg believes everyone should have an 18 month plan to pursue immediate workplace goals, like learning new skills and development opportunities.

5. Start a ‘lean-in’ circle. Join a relevant networking group of people who meet regularly to offer one and other encouragement and share development ideas.

Please contact Rachael North on 07837 630 220 for further information on networking/ ‘leaning-in,’ or to share your thoughts on this article. Thank you.

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